Breaking out of your vocabulary box

This isn’t an easy blog post to write.

The truth is: we all know you’re faking it.

You can speak fluently enough, but we can all tell it’s just the same hundred words over and over.

We all know that you can get by with people who know you, but that things drop off pretty quickly outside the office. It’s no secret that a lot of what people say goes right over your head.


Okay, sorry to aggravate your impostor syndrome. That post is written to everyone, because it’s something that everyone struggles with. We’ve all got limited vocabularies. We try to work around the, but we’re stuck speaking foreigner-speak. As someone put it to me a few years ago, “We don’t really speak Dari, we speak Glassman”—referring to the grammar book and vocabulary list that for years defined IAM’s Dari curriculum.

What can we do about it?

You’ve got to break things up. You’ve got to find new words: try to understand things you haven’t understood before, try to learn things you haven’t learned before.

But wait, you say: I don’t have a problem finding new words. It’s mostly just a mass of unknown words!

Exactly right. And what will happen if you try to get new words in a conversation with your language teacher? In one ear and out the other. Next week, you’re right back to where you started.

To solve this, you’ve got to work from new texts—something that you can record and listen to, or re-read later. Maybe you’ve already got a text that would be useful, or maybe you’ve got to create a new one; any text will do, or anything else as long as it doesn’t go away. If you study the words with flashcards as well, so much the better; otherwise, you can study by listening to or reading your text.

If you have a text relevant to your life or work, that’s ideal: perhaps curriculum from your project, or a translated policy. That’s the raw material for your language lesson. Look up those words in the dictionary, talk about it with a teacher, in short: massage the text. It’ll be immediately relevant.

If there’s no obvious text for you to work with, then you’ve got to find something new. This can be written text, a TV show, a recording from the radio, a story that you record from your teacher or a friend (or a stranger!). Next post will suggest a way to get new vocabulary from that fount of all knowledge: Wikipedia!

Ways to learn grammar

My last post addressed our goal in learning grammar. In brief: it doesn’t matter what you know about grammar, the important thing is that it comes out (and goes in) right. You need an internalized knowledge of grammar. Let’s think about that last sentence…

I can explain how to drive a manual transmission in one sentence: “When the engine is working too hard, push the clutch in, move the gear shift to the next highest gear, and release the clutch as you give it some more gas.” That’s head knowledge. You can’t drive a car with that knowledge. You have to go through a tortuous process of stalling and jerking over and over and over and over. Somehow you figure it out, and it starts happening. If you’re fortunate, you’re still on speaking terms with your parents at the end. Our goal in the sequence below is to start with the head knowledge (Steps 1 and 2), and get it into our internalized knowledge (Steps 3 and 4).

Step 1: Find out what you need to know

Any of these is a good way to find out what you need to learn.

  • Keep a running log of things you hear or read that you don’t understand. This is a very efficient way to identify holes in your knowledge.
  • Look through the Glassman book, or through these grammar descriptions, to find something unfamiliar, or something you think you might do wrong.
  • Write out a story or speech, and bring it to a language lesson. Revise it, and take note of the kinds of mistakes that you make. (Of course you can write in phonetic transcription or Dari script.)
  • If you can take it: record yourself having a conversation. Go back through it with a teacher and note down the kinds of mistakes you make.
  • Ask your teacher what you need to improve. Encourage honesty.

Step 2: Get the head knowledge

Find out how what you should be saying. You can do this as formally or as inductively as you like.

  • Look it up in a grammar book. Look for examples that sound like what you want to say. Or browse through the topics and look for something that seems relevant.
  • Negotiate meaning with your teaching to communicate what you want to say, and get the teacher to say it the correct way. (You may need to put it in the context of a short story.)
  • Ask the LCP consultant!

Step 3: Get some practice with the form

  • Try to generalize on the sentence. If you’ve figured out how to say, “I wish I had come to the party,” make up other variants of the same sort of sentence:
    • I wish I had studied Pashtu.
    • I wish Ahmad had gone to Kabul.
    • Ahmad wishes Razia was in Herat.
    • I don’t know whether Ahmad has gone to Kabul. [Is that the same grammar? I don’t know, try it out!]
  • I envision this happening in a language lesson so that you can be corrected.
  • Do this until you’re comfortable with the construction. Be deliberate in getting it right, and only then try for fluent production.

Step 4: Make a mental note to pay attention to that form in the future

  • I’ve found that simply being aware of a form makes me notice it more when I encounter it “in the wild”
  • If you have written or recorded texts that you listen to, make a note whenever this form appears, and re-read it or re-listen to it later.

What’s our goal in learning grammar?

My last post was about strategies for learning vocabulary. With this post I’d like to talk about learning grammar. In the vocab post, I shared a lot of ideas from a blog post that solicited various opinions. Interestingly, the same blog has another selection of opinions about learning grammar, which are notably more diverse. Grammar-learning is a controversial subject. In fact, I decided it was necessary to have a whole post just on what we mean by “learning grammar.”

Our goal is clear and accurate speech and accurate understanding

I want you to speak correctly and fluently. I want you to understand completely and fluently.

Some people are paralyzed by the need to speak correctly: they just seize up. If that’s you, then loosen up a bit. Let yourself make a few mistakes—you can learn from them.

Other people speak fluently from the beginning, accuracy be damned. If that’s you, you should be cautious about letting bad habits fossilize. Make the effort to speak correctly as well as fluently

The goal is to understand and produce, not to know about grammar

If you can understand and speak the language correctly, then you’re done. Stop reading this. I have nothing more for you. You don’t need grammar.

If you’re having trouble speaking and listening, you probably need to learn grammar. But you need to internalize the grammar, not study it explicitly. To understand that contrast, here is a sentence about Dari grammar:

 “The subjunctive is used as a dependent complement of the independent verbs khâstan ‘to want,’ tavânestan ‘to be able’ and gozashtan ‘to allow, let.’”

It doesn’t really matter in the least whether you understood that. On the other hand, you do need to be able to fill in the blank below.

“I want to go.” ma mexʌjʊm _______.

If you can’t fill in that blank, you need to study grammar. You can get a book about Dari grammar (like the Glassman book), or you can sit down with a teacher and just try to figure it out.

An inductive approach is the best way

The ideal is to learn the grammar inductively, without reading a book about grammar. We hope that this goes on during the Long Course. The goal is that the language “sound right” to you. It should eventually just come out by itself.

But the inductive approach is not the only approach, and we have grammatical resources (like the Glassman book) to give explicit instruction. Always remember that explicit instruction is a means to an end: to help you internalize the grammar. It’s not an end in itself.

Some limited rote repetition is probably necessary

At some point, I’m sure that I practiced verb agreement by rote: [ma mijʌjʊm, tu mijʌji, u mijʌja, mʌ mijʌjem, ʃʊma mijʌjen, unʌ mijʌjand; ma raftʊm, tu rafti, u raft, mʌ raftem….] — and on and on. If you’re learning about the perfect subjunctive for the first time, I recommend that you produce twenty or thirty perfect subjunctives to practice.

But again, this is only needed to beat the forms into your brain. You should be able to leave off the drills fairly quickly and use it in the real world. I do not recommend that you do drills with a language teacher. Find a foreign friend and practice with him/her if you need the correction. Use native speakers to practice fluency.


The grammar example is from Wheeler M. Thackston’s An Introduction to Persian, 3rd ed., pg. 112. It’s the best book on Persian grammar I’ve found, and I’ve learned a great deal from it.

[ma mexʌjʊm bʊrʊm], if you weren’t sure.